I don't ever want to drink again; I just need a friend. —Amy Winehouse
Let me kick a popular argument in the face right now. No matter what music critics tell you, Amy Winehouse wasn't inferior to the American R&B/soul singers she emulated. She was a young, Jewish, British, colossal public fuckup—instead of an old, black, American, private fuckup like her heroes. Her backing band, the Dap-Kings, made more magic in one record for Winehouse than for 55-year-old New York soul singer Sharon Jones, and if you disagree you should quit reading now. It's unfashionable to say, but it's true—in just one record, Back to Black, Amy Winehouse won by a mile. And her addictions and death do not detract a single whit from her albums. Except the ones we'll never hear.
Sharon Jones, god bless her, still has magnificent pipes, a beating heart, and a modicum of propriety. Winehouse was built of impropriety, from her beehive hairdo to her manifold and perverse tattoos: an ankh twined with a bald eagle, her husband's possessive name ("Blake's") over her left breast, and other people's breasts on her arms. She wandered the streets in the dead of night to the delight of tabloid photographers, wearing nothing but blue jeans and a bra, weeping. By the age of 24, she looked older than Keith Richards. Winehouse embraced a thanatic urge without explaining and without apologizing. I suspect that's why my mother, in the months between her diagnosis and her death, instantly fell in love with Amy Winehouse when I brought her a copy of Back to Black. My mother probably hadn't bought a new record in decades and didn't particularly like pop music, but she would be sitting at the kitchen table, or even the Thanksgiving-dinner table, and fill a silence by dropping her voice an octave and attempting to croon: "They tried to make me go to rehab/I said 'no, no, no.'" Winehouse couldn't even sing a love song without death lurking in the depths of her larynx. She wore doom like a crown.
Her life was a fucking mess and she wrote unflinching, steely lyrics about it. She sang about carpet burns and bathtub sex, hangovers and blackouts—things that had been coded and sublimated in R&B for decades. "Rehab" is about telling her nearest and dearest to fuck off when they thought she should clean up. "Back to Black" begins: "He left no time to regret/Kept his dick wet/With his same old safe bet." Her best songs feature difficult, dark chords—minors and sevenths and flats. "Back to Black" goes from D-minor to G-minor to B-flat-7 to A7. A simple F appears only for a moment of brief sonic/psychological relief in the bridge.
Back to Black is a magnificent record—maybe the record—about an addict just trying to lead a (semi-) normal life. (Though I'm with New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, who wrote that her earlier record, Frank, was "a high-school yearbook photo, something better left to conversation than to the canon.") I'd always hoped that Winehouse would return from her personal inferno with a third record, a record that would tell us what it's like to go to hell and back. I was hoping she'd give us an education. She seemed to have a deeper familiarity with addiction than most, a deeper honesty in her songwriting than most, and a will to live through her death wish.
But she died. She was found in her room in North London and, while I write this, the cause of her death has not yet been announced. (London police say that toxicology reports will take two to four weeks—but it's difficult to imagine that her death wasn't drug-related. She was only 27.)
According to the Guardian, her father Mitch Winehouse delivered a 40-minute eulogy at her funeral, saying she'd recently found some happiness in a new boyfriend, that she'd "conquered her drug dependency," and was "trying hard" to control her drinking. "Knowing she wasn't depressed," he said, "knowing she passed away, knowing she passed away happy, it makes us all feel better."
It's an odd and telling thing for a father to say, that the death of his young daughter makes the family "feel better." Maybe they, like the rest of us, felt the death in her voice and her veins, and are relieved that the suspense is over.
In 2009, she appeared on the British music quiz show Never Mind the Buzzcocks, and asked for a drink. The host denied her and said, "Do you want us all to sit here while you drink yourself to death?" He got a laugh. She laughed it off, too. "We used to be friends," he said. "Can we resuscitate the old Winehouse?"
"Oh, no," she said, sounding irritated and drunk. "She's dead."
"But I loved you when you were sober," he said.
"Let it die, please," she says. "Let it die."
"The addiction I'd like to die," he says. "This isn't even a pop quiz anymore, it's an intervention!"
He laughs. She laughs. The audience laughs. But everyone knows there's no joke.